After taking three of four from the Marlins over the weekend, the Mets head back to Citi Field to host the Oakland Athletics for two games. The Mets have a tough task in front of them as the A's have the best record in the major leagues at 47-29 and lead the AL West by 5 games. Oakland's run differential is the best in the majors, as their +135 mark easily tops the Mariners, who are second in the league at +46. Alex Hall writes for Athletics Nation and he answered a few questions for us today about Billy Beane's club.
Amazin' Avenue: The A's have the best record in the major leagues. How have they done it this season and can you tell us whether Billy Beane is actually a wizard or practices some kind of black magic or something?
Athletics Nation: The A's formula has been simple: score more runs than anybody in the Majors, and allow fewer runs than anybody in the Majors. Do those two things, and success should follow.
On offense, the A's lineup grinds out long at-bats and waits patiently for its pitch to hit. They lead the Majors in walks by a large margin, which means they're getting on base and driving up the pitch counts of opposing starters. When they do get their pitch, they unload, as they're also fourth in MLB in home runs. On the basepaths, their 45 steals are only 13th but their 85 percent success rate is tied for the best in baseball. They have a tendency to string together big innings with four, five, or more runs, which is also a testament to the depth of the lineup. There are so many guys who can get you in this group -- three hitters already have at least 50 RBI (Donaldson, Moss, Cespedes). And with manager Bob Melvin's mixing and matching, they always seem to have the platoon advantage when they need it.
On pitching, Beane has built a staff that yields a solid quality start every day (49 times in 76 tries) and rarely wavers in either direction. They don't often throw a shutout or even an eight-inning gem, but they rarely implode either; they've only suffered three "disaster starts" all year, in which the starter gave up more runs than innings pitched. The bullpen took a minute to gel, but now it's doing a good job cleaning up the final innings. The pitchers don't rack up huge strikeout totals, but they also don't walk a lot of guys and they keep the ball in the park.
Indeed, the name of the game for Oakland has been consistency, depth, and determination. The pitching keeps them in every contest, and the hitting is rarely completely stifled, even for nine innings at a time (much less multiple games in a row). When someone gets hurt or stops performing, a replacement is always ready to step in, whether from Triple-A or the waiver wire. And the game is never, ever over until the final out. They've only lost one game by seven runs this year and only four by as many as five runs, because even when they're down they always find a way to bring the tying run to the plate in the ninth.
Also, Billy Beane is a wizard.
AA: The Mets will miss him this series but journeyman Jesse Chavez has been a revelation, as he's turned in 15 starts with a 2.71 ERA and 3.48 FIP. What has he done to become so effective and is it for real?
AN: Chavez made the rather cliche transition from being a "thrower" to a "pitcher." By his own admission, he used to try to simply pump fastballs by everyone, but now he's learned to mix speeds and locations to hit corners and keep batters off balance. Furthermore, he scrapped his 4-seam fastball and replaced it with a cutter, which has become his new bread-and-butter pitch. He throws it around a third of the time, followed by (in descending order of usage) a sinker, a change and a curve. Each offering is effective, and his deep arsenal always gives him options.
I'd probably put him closer to his FIP than his ERA in the long-run, but that still makes him a huge success story. Homers used to be a big problem for him, and while he's cut them back to around average levels he's still capable of serving one up. His control can escape him now and then, though it's still better than it's ever been in his career. His specific numbers are surely a best-case scenario for him, but he's proven that he's an effective MLB starter. Now he just has to hold up over a full season.
AA: After Jim Johnson imploded in the closer's role, the A's handed the job to lefty Sean Doolittle, who has now struck out 50 batters and walked just 1 in 36 innings this season. Give us a scouting report on the lefty and some more info about the rest of the A's bullpen.
AN: First, he throws strike one, probably a fastball on a corner. Then the catcher throws the ball back. Then he throws strike two, usually a foul ball the other way on a heater that the batter didn't quite catch up on. The umpire gets a new ball and sends it to the mound. Then he throws strike three, likely on some high heat that the batter swung straight through. Then he screams a bloody war cry as his majestic, gingery beard flows in the wind. Every so often he throws a slider instead, just to mix things up, but not often.
Doo has made 10 appearances in June. In his 11 innings, he's retired 33 of the 34 batters he's faced (and the last 17 straight), with 15 strikeouts and only one hit. That's a batting line of .029/.029/.059 and a strikeout rate of 44 percent.
AA: Derek Norris has quietly been outstanding for the A's this year, hitting .302/.405/.509 this year after struggling as a rookie. Considering the Mets have their own struggling rookie catcher in Travis d'Arnaud, tell us what Norris has done this year to improve his offensive fortunes and please tell us that there's light at the end of the tunnel for our top catching prospect.
AN: Norris was supposed to develop into a Three True Outcomes hitter, but instead he ditched the strikeouts and replaced them with singles. Now his Three True Outcomes are homers, walks and singles. I would recommend that d'Arnaud make that switch.
Like many Oakland hitters, Norris waits patiently for his pitch, takes the walk if it's given to him, and puts the ball in play if he gets something to hit. I put a lot of stock in hitters who are able to walk as often as they strike out, and Norris is accomplishing that right now. Just don't throw him a meatball on 3-0, because I assure you he has the green light and he will destroy it.
Now if only opposing hitters would stop drilling him in the noggin with their wild backswings ...
Of course, Norris is only one part of a larger Oakland catching machine. He generally starts against lefties, while John Jaso picks up the at-bats against right-handers. And now, with Stephen Vogt available as a third option, Norris (158 OPS+) and Jaso (130 OPS+) can be in the same starting lineup with one as the DH. Oh, and Vogt can play right field and first base as well, because Beane said so.
AA: If the A's have a weakness, it's pretty well hidden given their excellent record and run differential. What do you think is the A's biggest weakness this season and how do you think they go about addressing it (if they have to)?
AN: Earlier in the year, it was the bullpen. Despite putting together what was supposed to be one of the strongest units in the league, they struggled to close out leads late in games. Jim Johnson was a wreck, Luke Gregerson still leads the Majors with six blown saves despite otherwise sparkling numbers, and Ryan Cook hasn't been himself. However, the emergence of Doolittle has settled things down, as Gregerson has slid back into the comfort zone of the eighth inning and righty Dan Otero and lefty Fernando Abad have formed a double-barreled set-up combo in the middle innings. The A's once led the AL in blown saves, but their total of 10 now ranks only 11th (and it should only be nine, but for an egregious blown call by the umpire on Saturday that cost Gregerson the tying run). The pen seems fine now.
From this point forward, I'd look at the starting pitching as a potential weakness. Things are looking rosy right now, but the depth has been taxed to its limit and there isn't a lot more room for error over the next 3-4 months. Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin went out before the season even started, and Drew Pomeranz is now on the shelf short-term with a fractuced (non-pitching) hand. Dan Straily is still available in the minors, but he's there because he was ineffective in Oakland. Gray and Chavez are in their first years as MLB starters, and Kazmir hasn't thrown 200 innings since 2007. There is a high likelihood that someone in this rotation breaks down as the year progresses, and Beane would be smart to prepare for that now. It would be an absolute shock to me if he didn't acquire a veteran starter at the deadline. Athletics Nation likes Brandon McCarthy as a familiar, buy-low candidate.
Thanks again to Alex Hall for giving us a preview of the Athletics!